Time, words, and found objects
Nyack poet writes about shiva, creates art from sardine cans, brings it all together
Things change. They morph. Time works on them. Time also works on us.
Poet Maxine Silverman of Nyack knows that.
She has written a book of poems, “Shiva Moon,” that focuses not only on sitting shiva for her father, Abraham Silverman, but on the year that followed.
Things are never the same. Even things that at first look as if they cannot change. Even standardized, assembly-line things. Time changes them. Circumstances change them. We change them.
Artist Maxine Silverman of Nyack knows that.
She has created a series of objects made of sardine cans, each assemblage different and each can somehow different as well, 60 of them, one for each week of the year and then a few extra, because it was too hard to stop.
Both series — as well as Ms. Silverman’s other books of poetry and other pieces of visual art — have to do with really looking and really seeing, with change and difference and time passing. And with love.
“The book is about saying kaddish, but I called it ‘Shiva Moon’ because I ended up doing research and learning a lot about astronomy,” Ms. Silverman said. Her father died in December 1999. “That’s because when we were sitting shiva, there was an unusual celestial display. There was a full moon and the winter solstice and the lunar perigee. It happened for the first time in 133 years. The moon was so close and so bright and, and I remember that at the funeral the rabbi said something about how maybe it could bring some comfort.
“And I said, well, my father sure did shine on me, all of my life. And so the title of the book grew from that week of sitting shiva.”
About a month later, she said, around the end of shloshim, there was a total lunar eclipse; you could see the so-called red moon up high in the sky that night. You also could see, on that crystalline winter night, the glimmer of many other stars that the normal moon blocks. It was sparkling and unearthly beauty.
“I was so porous then,” Ms. Silverman said. “I was so porous that everything turned to language.
“My father and I were extremely close, and I was with him when he died, holding his hand. We were so close that I never felt that there was anything left unsaid, and so I was free to grieve freely, with no remorse.
“The depth of my mourning was the flip side of how much I loved him.”
Here’s the start of North Star, the first poem in her book.
my father murmured, how
my hand shimmers.
“That poem sort of sets up how significant language was to my father,” Ms. Silverman said. “He loved language. He wasn’t a writer, but he loved to play with language.
“At the end of his life, he had a palsy, and he shook,” she continued. “One day, he held up his hand, and he said, ‘Look how my hand shimmers.’ I think he meant shivers — it was very close to the end — but it sets up his relationship to language very nicely.
“And there is another poem, called Journey Cake,” she continued.
We fill his breast pocket.
Not what he needs,
what we need to give
for the rest of our journey.
“That poem describes how we decided what to put in his pocket,” she said. “It was clear that it wasn’t for him. It was for us.”
The same was true about saying kaddish, Ms. Silverman said. “It’s for the living. It’s to honor the person, but also to comfort you, and you hope that some day someone will say kaddish for you.”
Why did she find the act of saying kaddish comforting? “Because it would have mattered so much to my father,” she said. “There is the phrase ‘This is my kaddish,’” that parents say about their children.” Traditionally, only men could say kaddish, so a parent’s “kaddish” would be a son, but Abe Silverman, the father of no sons and three daughters, was not bothered by that. “My father used to tell his friends, who would tease him about it, that their sons would start borrowing their fathers’ ties and their cars so that they could take his daughters out,” she said.
Ms. Silverman belongs to Congregation Sons of Israel, a Conservative shul in Nyack. She took comfort from that community, and from the tradition it embodies. “I found that the tradition offered me what I really needed at every point,” she said. During shloshim, her husband, Howard Andrews, asked her to go door to door with a petition about a cause she cared deeply about. “I said, ‘I can’t,’” she recalled. “I couldn’t imagine knocking on doors then. And then I read more about shloshim, and about how gradually you return to the new normal.” The tradition, to which she had been adhering without realizing what she’d been doing, made good emotional sense.
“Saying kaddish, especially after we were back in the swirl of life, gave me a moment to focus on my love for my father,” she said.
Throughout her book, Ms. Silverman has included poems she calls What I Learned So Far. They resonate with biblical language and imagery. The first one ends
A way is made.
Gathered to his people,
a story old as time.
The first father of the children of Israel, Abraham, died and was gathered to his people, Genesis tells us, just as her own father Abraham was.
In her last What I Learned So Far, we are told
A tribe gathers around fire.
Someone begins a nigun.
A song. A wordless melody that bypasses the brain on its way to the heart. A way to remember.
As she was working on this book, which she began soon after her father died but finished this year, Ms. Silverman also was creating sardine-can art.
She began writing when she was 9 years old, she said, but she did not begin working in visual art until 10 or so years ago, when she discovered the artists’ beit midrash at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. “The beit midrash is wonderful, and I love it,” she said. “I always laugh, that they let me in without a passport,” as she goes from New York to New Jersey.
She had never created art before, and quickly realized that as good as it feels to just make things, it’s better to learn some technique, to have some idea what she’s doing. She worked with Harriet Finck, who “has a way of meeting each piece where it is, without having some preconceived idea about it,” she said.
How does she decide what should be created with words, and what with physical objects? “I started doing visual art when I was going through a rough period, and I knew exactly how I felt,” she said. “I didn’t have to clarify it with words. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m feeling or what I mean until I see it in words on the page, but this time I knew exactly.
“So I fled into material things. I saw that I could just follow my hands. I just follow my hands.”
Much of Ms. Silverman’s work is with found objects, with things that most people see in one way but she can see in another; for example, she brought home a wheelbarrow frame, stood it up just for storage, and saw that it clearly was a woman’s body. The artwork that she made with it made that vision clear to others.
She created a series using found X-rays, which she framed. The first time she did it, it was at the beit midrash, to illustrate a biblical passage about how judges are to be chosen. “I said that a diagnosis is a kind of judgment,” she said. “So I turned X-rays into a portrait of someone who might come before a judge.
“There was an elegant woman with pearls, and a Japanese scholar, and a stranger, at the door,” she said.
The woman with pearls is framed in a rich brown satin, and Ms. Silverstein put fake pearls at the bottom. The frame around the Japanese scholar is made from kimono material. That X-ray, she said, was of her husband’s neck. Another X-ray was one of a cat that a friend found in a house she’d just moved into. A friend’s son broke his collarbone playing football; that X-ray became a bride.
Ms. Silverman also began working with cans, “utilitarian objects, but there are so many variations,” she said. Once her friends knew what she was doing, they began bringing her cans, sometimes leaving them on her porch so she’d see them when she went outside in the morning. “It became a collaborative project,” she said.
Sardine cans come in different colors, she has learned. “Some are silver on the outside and coppery gold on the inside, and some are the reverse. Some are all silver, some are all gold. And the designs imprinted in them are different.
“I was just so taken with the fact that someone would spend so much time and attention on making this basic, utilitarian thing. We recycle them, and pat ourselves on the back for our civic virtue, but it amazed me what you can see when you look at them.”
She’s learned a great deal about sardine cans, and about sardines in general, since she began the project, Ms. Silverman said. “There are several museums around the world dedicated to sardines and the sardine industry.” Logically enough, one of those museums is in Portugal, and another is in Maine; both places are sardine hubs.
“Some of my cans are about the can itself, and some are homages to other artists,” Ms. Silverman said. “There is an artist who lived in Rockland for many years and influenced people like Robert Rauschenberg. In her day, she was a big deal.
“Her name was Sari Dienes, and my husband, Howard, who is brilliant, said Sari Dienes. Sardines! So that was the first one I did as an homage.
“Others are quite political. There’s one with a face looking out through bars, as if it’s a prison and he’s a political prisoner. And others are abstract, and some look like jewelry.”
She likes using found objects because “People throw stuff away when it’s old or broken, but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. I always come home with stuff. Howard asks me how[?]
Or, as she says in the fifth What I Learned So Far,
Specialized bodies of knowledge,
require their own language,
grief’s aleph bet,
the jargon of mourning,
a grammar of loss and longing
in the context of love v’kavanah.